Canadians Outraged Over Drug Facility's Inhouse "Crack Shack"

By Dirk Hanson 05/27/11

A plan to build an "inhalation room" for crack smokers is causing trouble for a famous drug facility.

Will Vancouver's crack-heads get their own special room? Photo via aidsconnect

If the InSite facility in Vancouver—North America’s longest-running supervised drug injection facility—survives its current court challenge, the next major battle it faces will likely take place over a little-known aspect of the clinic, which is located on Vancouver’s druggy Downtown Eastside. At the back of the facility, past the numbered injection cubicles, is a room that currently serves as storage space. But InSite's directors are soon planning to remodel the space into a “supervised inhalation” chamber for crack smaokers, properly outfitted with "special ventilation equipment,” writes Sunny Dhillon in an article that appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail. Their intention is to allow health officials to reach out to a population at risk for viruses and other infections caused by using dirty crack pipes.

Not surprisingly, the clinic's neighbors are none too happy. They insist that there's little evidence that such innovations would result in real benefits, and argue that InSite's efforts would further encourage addiction to illegal drugs by providing addicts with a safe place in which to consume them. Thus far, the Canadian government, which has gone all the way to the Supreme Court in an effort to shutter the InSite facility, has refused two applications by InSite for a health exemption that would have allowed neighborhood crack smokers to use the room.

The “crack shack” was intended to be modeled after similar facilities currently in use in Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and other countries. The director of the non-profit society that operates InSite said that addicts “don’t have a gateway into support if they’re smoking in alleys and being marginalized.” Admittedly, the concept is a tough sell for most people—but so is the idea of an injection facility in the first place. And for that matter, even the overall idea of harm reduction is still rife with controversy, in a society where the first impulse is often to punish, not to rehabilitate. Despite all that, we will be hearing more, not less, about supervised drug consumption in the future.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]